By Kathy Keane
Local Wildlife Biologist and Ornithologist
Special to the Town Crier
As you learned in my article in last week’s Town Crier, Idyllwild residents share our natural areas with a form of the Southern Pacific Rattlesnake. It carries a type of venom that can incapacitate a human until antivenom is administered or kill a dog in less than two hours. Dr. William Hayes, a herpetologist (the technical term for a specialist with snakes and other reptiles) at Loma Linda University has been studying Idyllwild’s form of the SPR for 12 years. Local herpetologists collect SPR from Idyllwild and deliver them to Dr. Hayes’ lab, where he samples their venom and feces before they are returned to Idyllwild.
Dr. Hayes is also conducting research on snakebite statistics, soon to be published. He has found that “approximately 80 percent of rattlesnake bites in our region are inflicted upon males; roughly 45 percent of the bites involve interacting with the snake, and about 20 percent are associated with alcohol or drugs. These statistics lay some blame on what may be the two most dangerous chemicals in the world: testosterone and alcohol. A large number of bites — and the high costs associated with treating them — could be avoided if people would use better judgment and simply leave the snake alone. Snakes are as much frightened by us as we are of them. They only bite as a last resort, when they feel their lives are threatened.”
The best way to avoid snakebites for yourself and your dog is to limit your hikes to dirt roads and wide trails, particularly during the warm parts of the day when snakes and other reptiles are most active. Be very careful when removing logs from your woodpile, a favorite hide-out for snakes. Always keep your dog on a leash when hiking, and be sure it receives annual rattlesnake avoidance training. Your veterinarian can provide rattlesnake vaccines (two injections, three weeks apart), but the vaccines only buy you more time to get to a veterinarian to treat typical snakebites, not snakebites from Idyllwild’s form of SPR, which carries venom akin to that of a cobra, resulting in symptoms such as muscle spasms or weakness, increased heart rate and difficulty breathing.
Another common rattlesnake in Idyllwild is the speckled rattlesnake; its venom is less dangerous and causes local swelling and pain.
In the event you or your dog suffers a rattlesnake bite, follow the emergency information below, provided by Singleton’s Animal Connection and Idyllwild resident Iver Scott:
1. Do not panic. Panic speeds up your heart rate and the transport of venom through your body.
2. If the victim is human, call 911. When the Idyllwild Fire Department receives a snakebite call, they immediately call Mercy Air, the local life-flight helicopter service or, if your symptoms are not life-threatening, they will transport you by ambulance to the closest emergency room. If you live outside of Idyllwild or Pine Cove, your location may be under the jurisdiction of Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department instead of IFD. Response time for Cal Fire paramedics can be longer as they sometimes have a greater distance to travel than IFD.
3. For snake-bitten dogs, carry your dog to the car, since paralysis may have set in. Call Living Free Animal Sanctuary at 951-659-4684 and drive immediately there to 54250 Keen Camp Road, Mountain Center. They have the Venom Vet antivenom and veterinary facilities. Drive south from Idyllwild on Highway 243, turn left on Highway 74, and the entrance is less than a mile on the left. Also call veterinarian Dr. Lindsay Crowley (951-444-1838) to meet you there.
4. Do not try to capture or kill the snake for identification. As last week’s Town Crier article stated, the antivenom available in emergency rooms, Cro-Fab, covers all rattlesnakes (unfortunately, Cro-Fab is the only one-for-all antivenom approved by the Food and Drug Administration, so the manufacturer can sell it at a high profit).
5. Do not use tourniquets or ice on the bite. But if it’s an SPR bite on your dog, do use ice to lower your dog’s temperature, which may increase to dangerous levels. Put a small dog in a bucket of ice water and cover large dogs with bags of ice while on the way to Living Free.
6. Avoid cutting the skin at the bite site or using any so-called Snake Bite Kit, which can only worsen the situation.
7. Antivenom is the only treatment that works, even if your pet has received rattlesnake vaccines.
8. Remove any jewelry near the site of the bite since swelling will likely occur and prevent removal later.
9. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the E.R. There is a high risk of losing consciousness due to a drop in blood pressure, and more serious symptoms may develop if you’ve been bitten by Idyllwild’s form of SPR.
10. Most snakebites on dogs are on the face while the dog is investigating it. SPR venom will adversely affect the dog’s ability to breathe, so administer Benedryl® if you see signs of paralysis or heavy panting. The recommended dosage is 1 mg per pound of body weight, but that dosage had no effect on my dog Lucky. A moderate Benedryl® overdose is less important than saving your dog’s life. Children’s liquid Benedryl® is easiest to administer.
11. Hikers and others concerned about access to immediate treatment can ask their doctors for an EpiPen® (epinephrine) prescription. However, do not use epinephrine unless suffocation is setting in.
12. Limit fluid intake since the body pumps fluids to the bite site, increasing painful swelling. Chew on ice to relieve thirst. Avoid alcohol — it increases metabolism and thins your blood.
Sign up for rattlesnake avoidance training for your dog. Check the schedules for sessions in or near Idyllwild at Singleton’s Animal Connection (http://snakesmarts.com), or Natural Solutions (http://socalrattlesnakeavoidancetraining.com/Schedule.php).